Friday, August 27, 2010

Lines being crossed

by Lauren

Jim, Miriam, Jessica have already tackled two of this late summer’s most hotly anticipated releases, but the one I’m most excited for is one that I’ve already read. Emma Donoghue’s Room is on the Booker longlist and recently came out in the UK, where it’s receiving some very nice reviews. My BEA galley made the rounds in this office and has also been read by many of my friends, even though it’s not released in the US till mid-September. No one could deny Donoghue’s genius.

Apparently, though, at least one person feels that the book’s quality as a work of fiction is irrelevant given that it’s inspired in part by real events. The idea for Room came from the idea that when Josef Fritzl was captured, the children his daughter had borne while his captive had never seen the world outside where they were held. The story isn’t about the Fritzl case, and it’s not (unfortunately) the only case of that nature, but Donoghue admits to getting the idea for the book because of it. Writing in the Guardian, Darragh McManus objects to using a major tragedy as inspiration for a fictional work, presuming, apparently, that it’s a cynical choice motivated by greed. McManus grants an exemption for those with personal ties (Maus is okay, because of Spiegelman’s father) and apparently reserves no such negative judgment for people writing about smaller, less “newsworthy” tragedies, which I suppose is for the best given that it’d leave novelists with precious little to write about.

I think that McManus’s conclusion in the piece really misses the mark, in that I don’t think Donoghue is doing those things he claims are the reason for his “no big tragedies” policy in his concluding paragraph. That aside, though, I’m just not convinced that it can reasonably be considered wrong to write novels based on real events. Can it be crass and cynical? Absolutely. Though I doubt that most people writing stories inspired by, say, the Holocaust are being deliberately, consciously manipulative, I’m certainly not beyond finding some of them to be schmaltzy and cheap. But for me, it doesn’t follow that they shouldn’t have done it because I happen to feel that way. I’m just not comfortable with the notions that a) anyone owns particular tragedies, b) some tragedies are more important or sacred than others, or c) we’d be well served by declining to fictionalize them. Novels are a large part of the way that we understand the past and process our feelings about it in the present. I can only imagine how much we’d lose of our understanding of life, death, and what came before us if we saved it for the history books that many never bother to read.

In this case, I’m taking the old standby: if McManus isn’t comfortable with it, he doesn’t have to read it, but that doesn’t mean Donoghue shouldn’t write it.

5 comments:

  1. You really can't help it if something inspires you can you?
    In as much as Mcmanus has his freedom of speech Donoghue has her's too, so we'll just let the readers decide.
    ugh freedom of speech!

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  2. This is silly. Writers are intrigued by news stories like everybody else. I know of several writers who are already working on things inspired by the plight of those miners in Chile. They're not exploiting it; they're examining it. That's what fiction does.

    In fact, aren't MOST fictional works inspired by real events? Most of my work is sparked by the "what if?" that happens in my head when I read a news item or hear somebody with an interesting personal tale.

    But if his rant is getting publicity for Emma Donoghue, great!

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  3. I suppose Toni Morrison's Beloved is also less than genius. O_o

    I LOVE that anyone actually thinks they can put parameters on someone else's muse or inspiration.

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  4. "b) some tragedies are more important or sacred than others"

    Thanks for this statement. Unfortunately some tragedies throughout history are looked upon as more sacred than others in general.

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  5. Are we not supposed to be inspired by the world around us? It sounds as if Donoghue had a what-if moment, and the distaste towards it stems from the fact that the case is relatively recent. What about writers who are inspired by historical events? Arthur Miller used the Salem Witch Trials in The Crucible, too many authors to count drew from history and legend (including Homer and Shakespeare), and so on. Were many of those things not tragedies at the time? And seriously, what makes a tragedy "major" or "minor", since apparently minor tragedies are OK for McManus? One could argue that the Fritzl case is a minor tragedy since it only affects one family, if compared to something like 9/11 or the Rwandan genocide or the Israel-Palestine conflict or, yes, the Holocaust. The Fritzl case has just gotten a lot of news time.

    But really, tragedy is tragedy, no matter the scale.

    I think it's OK to be inspired by something in the current world, and there's a difference between being inspired to create an original story and writing a fictionalized account. The latter would be tasteless in my opinion, especially since the victims are still alive. I haven't read the book so I can't say, although I'll trust your judgment here.

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